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Appellate Court Affirms Discharge of Writ for Lancaster Development

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014

In an unpublished decision in Quartz Hill Cares v. City of Lancaster, 2014 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 7571, the Court of Appeal for the Second District upheld the trial court’s discharge of a writ of mandate challenging an addendum to the Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR) for a commercial retail development in the City of Lancaster (City).

The court clarified its previously ruling in Quartz Hill Cares v. City of Lancaster (Quartz I), 2012 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 2026, in which the court held the analysis of one project alternative in the FEIR lacked adequate supporting evidence. (For a complete analysis of Quartz I by the Thomas Law Group see our previous blog post: http://www.thomaslaw.com/blog/unpublished-decision-holds-that-a-comparative-analysis-is-required-to-support-the-conclusion-that-an-alternative-is-economically-infeasible/). Following Quartz I, the City adopted an addendum to the FEIR supplying the missing data to support rejecting the project alternative and the trial court discharged the writ. 

Petitioner contended the trial court improperly discharged the writ because Quartz I required decertification of the entire FEIR. The court emphasized that the disposition must be read in conjunction with the opinion as whole. Although one sub-heading of the Quartz I opinion stated “Certification of the FEIR must be reversed[,]” the court held there was no ambiguity in the Quartz I disposition when read as a whole. Quartz I rejected all of petitioner’s challenges except for a narrow portion of the analysis of one alternative. Accordingly, the City was not required to decertify the entire FEIR to comply with the Quartz I decision. 

The court also rejected petitioner’s claim that the deficient portion of the FEIR was not severable from the FEIR. The trial court held that under Public Resources Code section 21168.9, the trial court had flexibility to tailor a remedy to fit the specific CEQA violation. Here, the deficiency was narrow and discrete, so the trial court did not err in finding that one section severable from the remainder of the FEIR.

Finally, the court rejected petitioner’s argument that the trial court erred in failing to require the City to recirculate the revised portion of the FEIR. Because Quartz I did not decertify the entire FEIR, an addendum was proper and circulation for public review was not required.

Appellate Court Upholds Trial Court’s Jurisdiction to Discharge Writ for Huntington Beach Senior Center

Tuesday, August 5th, 2014

In an unpublished decision, Parks Legal Defense Fund v. City of Huntington Beach, (2014) Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 5050, the Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s jurisdiction to discharge a writ of mandate, but reversed and remanded the trial court’s determination that the subsequent environmental impact report complied with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), finding this determination outside the limited scope of the writ.

In 2008, Parks Legal Defense Fund (Parks) filed a petition for a writ of mandate challenging the City of Huntington Beach’s certification of an environmental impact report (EIR) for a senior center in a city park.  The trial court issued a writ ordering the City to vacate its approvals and prepare a subsequent EIR to address the suitability of alternative off-site locations and requiring the City to a file a return to the writ.  The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s decision in December 2010, finding that the EIR had multiple flaws.

A second appeal addressing attorney fees was dismissed in April 2011, following the stipulation of the parties in furtherance of a settlement agreement.  Once the trial court vacated the fee award pursuant to the settlement agreement, the City requested that the court close the case.  The trial court declined to relinquish its jurisdiction until the City complied with the appellate court’s decision requiring the City to set aside certification of the EIR and issuance of project approvals. Once the City took the necessary action, the trial court held another status conference in July 2011, during which the court deemed the matter in compliance with the appellate court’s orders and stated that it would take no further action.

In May 2012, Parks filed a new lawsuit; however, the City continued to pursue the original litigation and filed its return to the writ in February of 2013, along with a motion to discharge the writ.  Parks opposed the motion, arguing that the original proceeding was over and the trial court had no further jurisdiction over the matter.  The trial court determined that it had jurisdiction and granted the motion, and also held that the subsequent EIR prepared by the City was in compliance with CEQA in all respects.

On appeal, the court rejected Parks’ claim that the trial court did not have jurisdiction to discharge the charge.  Under Public Resources Code section 21168.9, subdivision (b), the trial court retains jurisdiction over the proceedings until it deems that the public agency has complied with the writ.  While the City had prepared a subsequent EIR and set aside certification of the original EIR, at no point in the case’s procedural history prior to February, 2013 did the City file a return to the writ.  Nor did the trial court dismiss the case.

The appellate court held, however, that the trial court acted outside the scope of its jurisdiction when it issued an order stating that the subsequent EIR complied with CEQA in all respects.  The trial court was limited in its review to the matters included in the writ; however, the language in the trial court’s order finding compliance with CEQA in all respects could be interpreted to mean that the City had complied not only with respect to the issues addressed in the original judgment, but also with respect to every conceivable issue arising under CEQA.  The appellate court found this language overbroad and remanded to the trial court to issue a new order that only discharged the writ.

Finally, the court made a point to observe that Parks repeatedly failed to organize its brief in a coherent manner and neglected to properly support its arguments with citations to the record or legal authority.  The court declined to sort out these muddled arguments and treated them as waived.

Appellate Court Finds No CEQA or Brown Act Violations For Demolition of Buildings by School District

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

In an unpublished decision in Civilian Conservation Corps Camp Interest Group v. Valley Center Pauma Unified School District, (2014) Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 4760, the Court of Appeal for the Fourth Appellate District, Division One, upheld the trial court’s denial of a writ of mandate seeking to compel Valley Center Pauma Unified School District (the District) to prepare an environmental impact report for the demolition of buildings adjacent to an elementary school.  The court also upheld the trial court’s dismissal of alleged Brown Act violations for purportedly deciding to approve the demolition outside of a public meeting, failing to make certain documents available to the public, and failing to provide adequate notice of a public meeting.

The case stems from the 2011 acquisition by the District of a small parcel of land adjacent to an elementary school in the District.  There were seven Depression-era buildings on the parcel that the District determined were hazardous due to structural issues, lead paint, and asbestos.   Over the objection of Civilian Conservation Corps Camp Interest Group (Petitioner) at a public meeting, the District approved demolition of the buildings and within a few days of approval the buildings were removed except for the foundations and footings.

The court first rejected Petitioner’s claim that the demolition of the buildings violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).  In Petitioner’s complaint, Petitioner had asserted the project requiring CEQA review was all approvals and work related to the demolition of the buildings.  However, the demolition of the buildings was already complete.  Citing Woodward Park Homeowners Assn. v. Garreks, Inc. (2000) 77 Cal.App.4th 880, the court held that Petitioner’s CEQA claim was moot because the court was “unable to provide Petitioner with effectual relief and any order would have no practical impact.”

Petitioner argued that the demolition project was not complete because the buildings’ foundations were still in place and further, the demolition should be included in the District’s larger project to build a sports field on the parcel.  However, the court rejected this argument as premature.  The Petitioner had alleged only that the work related to demolition violated CEQA and not the planned sports field project that Petitioner now sought to add.  Also, the foundations were not part of the hazard on the parcel, so the project that Petitioner alleged in the complaint was complete and the alleged CEQA violation was moot.

Next, the court considered the alleged Brown Act violations and held that there were insufficient facts alleged to support the claim.  The Brown Act allows the public to seek an injunction or declaratory relief to stop ongoing violations and prevent threatened future violations.  Plaintiffs must support the alleged ongoing violations or threatened future violations with “competent allegations of fact” demonstrating a pattern or ongoing practice of Brown Act violations.  In this case, Petitioner’s allegations of improper deliberations  by members of the District’s Board of Trustees and a failure to provide certain documents to the public were made purely  on “information and belief” with no supporting facts.  While the Petitioner did sufficiently support the allegation of inadequate notice of the demolition on the Board’s agenda, there was no allegation of a historical pattern of doing so.  The Brown Act was established to stop ongoing violations and prevent future violation; it is not a remedy for past actions.  As a result, the court held that Petitioner had failed to allege adequate facts and did not state a sufficient claim for declaratory or injunctive relief under the Brown Act.

Key Points

CEQA claims in a petition can be moot if there is no practical relief that can be granted.  Brown Act claims must be supported by facts showing a pattern or practice of ongoing violations.